By Geri Coleman Tucker
Words have power. They can shape how kids with learning and attention issues feel about themselves. Here are nine things not to say, plus some suggested alternatives.
Avoid comparing your child’s challenges to what’s “normal.” If you use this word, you may imply your child is abnormal—even if you don’t mean to. Talking about what’s usually “expected” could be a more useful approach.
Try to choose words that are more positive than “disabled.” Even if he’s been identified as having a disability, the word “disabled” may send the wrong message. Instead, talk about your child’s abilities and strengths or even how he is differently able.
It is important, however, to talk to your child about what it means to have a disability and to encourage self-advocacy. Remind him that having a disability is nothing to be ashamed of.
Learning and attention issues are not illnesses. Try not to refer to them in this way. Your child isn’t sick. Share how you or someone you know of—maybe even a celebrity the child knows and admires—has worked around a learning or attention issue.
Try to avoid words like “no,” “don’t” or “stop.” They can prompt negative responses. Instead, use a more positive approach, such as: “Can you try this assignment another way?” This kind of redirection could have a positive influence on young and older children alike.
Offer criticism in a way that doesn’t deflate, and not as a standalone critique. Instead, sandwich criticism between two positives to help motivate your child. (“It’s great that you started your math homework right after school today. Tomorrow you need to spend an extra 15 minutes checking your answers. You’ve been working really hard lately, and I’m proud of you.”)
Try not to tell your child to “just try harder” or “this is easy” or “you’ll have to learn it on your own.” These phrases might imply your child is just being lazy—when it’s likely he’s actually working very hard. Help by guiding or reminding about a strategy he’s successfully used in the past.
Avoid describing your child as “suffering” from learning and attention issues. This word may communicate a feeling of weakness or hopelessness. Focus on talking about progress, accomplishments and the individual challenges your child has to work through.
Don’t suggest there’s a cure. Learning and attention issues are lifelong challenges. But do remind your child there are many things he, you, his teachers and doctors can do to work around what’s particularly difficult for him.
Avoid words like “handicapped,” “impaired” and “slow.” Such terms not only can be offensive but may also give the impression that your child’s difficulties are more severe than they really are. Focus plenty of attention on the areas where he shines so he can relish his successes.
When it comes to personal safety, kids with learning and attention issues may be more vulnerable than other kids. So how can you teach your child about “safe” and “unsafe” people? Start with these tips.
It’s not always easy to respond to your child’s behavior with empathy. But when you show her you understand and respect her needs, you’re helping her stay motivated and gain self-esteem. Plus, you’re building her trust in you. Here are tips for responding with empathy.
Geri Coleman Tucker is a freelance writer and editor and a former deputy managing editor for USA Today.
Bob Cunningham, Ed.M., serves as advisor-in-residence on learning and attention issues for Understood.
Experts Weigh In: “What Should I Do When My Child Says ‘I’m Dumb’?”
5 Things Not to Say to Your Child About Dyspraxia
5 Things Not to Say to Your Child About ADHD
The Importance of Showing Empathy to Kids With Learning and Attention Issues
9 Ways to Show Empathy for Kids With Learning and Attention Issues
Why Your Teen or Tween May Be Frustrated With School—and What You Can Say to Help
There was an error posting your reply.
Thanks for being a part of the Understood Community. Your comment will appear shortly, once it’s been reviewed.
*Please confirm you are not a robot.
Despite her diagnosis, and losing her mother, Savannah is now thriving in college.
Use this chart to understand evaluation terminology.
Find out why kids with ADHD may be aggressive, and how you can help.
Here's what can trigger anxiety in kids that are highly sensitive, and how you can help.
Sign up for weekly emails with helpful resources for you and your family.
This email is already subscribed to Understood newsletters. If you haven't been receiving anything, add email@example.com to your safe-senders list.
Name must have no more than 50 characters. Email address must be valid. Email message must have no more than 140 characters and cannot include the < > / \ special characters. Please fill out all fields and complete the reCAPTCHA to send a message.
*Please confirm you are not a robot.
Don’t worry—we saved what you wrote.
Sign up to get personalized recommendations and connect with parents and experts in our community.
Only members can view and participate in conversations.
Child’s nickname is private and only you can see it.